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Johnny Marr: never mind Chanel – this was the place to be in Manchester

Johnny Marr at Manchester's Aviva Studios
Johnny Marr at Manchester's Aviva Studios - Riaz Gomez

On the night that Chanel took over Manchester’s Northern Quarter for the Métiers d’Art fashion show, the city’s favourite guitarist came home to christen Factory International’s new £242 million Aviva Studios with its inaugural gig. Backed by a full orchestra, Johnny Marr delivered a joyous set which included the most anthemic of Smiths’ songs, revisited Electronic – the supergroup he formed with Bernard Summer of New Order and the Pet Shop Boys – alongside tracks from across the four albums he has recorded since beginning a solo career 10 years ago, at the rather mature age of 49.

Few people look as much like a rock guitarist as Johnny Marr. With his dark good looks, slim frame and Mancunian mod-inspired hair-do, he resembles Jeff Beck or Ronnie Wood, or even a brunette version of Mick Ronson, David Bowie’s sideman in the Ziggy Stardust period. He will always be known for the songs he wrote with Morrissey, the most unforgettable of frontmen. Marr famously created the Smiths by turning up at Morrissey’s front door as a 19-year-old, and he effectively ended the band when he walked out five years later. His long-simmering career away from Morrissey suggests he is happiest when stepping in as a guest guitarist, bringing a distinctive mood to works by The Pretenders, The The, and the Talking Heads.

Marr may have been the most precocious of teenage guitarists, but he has taken a long time to find his feet at the centre of the stage. Yet there he was, on the first night of a two-day residency, soon after his 60th birthday but still improbably youthful-looking, the singer of not just any band, but a full, 26-piece orchestra.

The set opened with his 2019 techno-y tune Armatopia, an effective introduction for conductor Fiona Brice’s orchestra of largely northern musicians. But it was the fourth song, the Smiths’ 1984 classic How Soon is Now?, which brought the show to life. It was startling when the band first performed it, seeming to turn away from both 80s indie music and 60s pop towards a more transcendent vision of rock music. With stabbing violins and resounding timpani, it came alive again almost 40 years later, lifting the 4,000-strong crowd in the venue’s larger Warehouse auditorium.

Marr is cool and expressive when he holds a guitar, yet he also has a goofy quality that is perhaps the secret behind his strong bond with the audience. His version of the Smiths’ Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want on an acoustic guitar had real emotional impact. When the woodwind came in, I was reminded that the huge box-like venue we were in was suspended over the original Coronation Street set, its own wistful soaring theme tune seeming to filter through the concrete.

Could anything top the news that Kate Moss had been spotted shopping in Manchester’s Aldi? It turned out, yes. Marr reminded us that Electronic’s 1991 single Getting Away With It was written in the Hacienda, “only 400 yards or metres away”, performing a version accompanied by huge projections of sweaty nights in everyone’s favourite defunct nightclub. He encored with the Smiths’ Panic and a fittingly heartfelt communal There is a Light That Never Goes Out, and left to a crowd chanting, “Johnnny, Johnny, Johnny f---ing Marr”. Never mind Chanel, there was only one place to be in Manchester last night.


Playing Factory International again tonight; factoryinternational.org